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Canagarajah, Suresh. A History of Orientations to Text. CE, Sept. 2019. Posted 11/24/2019.

Canagarajah, Suresh. “Weaving the Text: Changing Literacy Practices and Orientations.” College English 82.1 (2019): 7-28. Print.

In a special issue of College English, “Reorienting to the Text,” Suresh Canagarajah’s guest editor essay explores the reference to “weaving” in the etymology of “text” to trace a progression of attitudes toward texts in academic and intellectual circles since the advent of alphabetic writing. He writes that these attitudes have tended to produce binaries like “orality versus writing,” “community versus artifact,” and “mobility versus stability,” among others (8). Approaches that Canagarajah groups under “modernist literacy,” he states, valued the second binaries in this list, while later orientations shifted the focus to the initial concepts (8).

Cautioning that the history of text is not a linear path to “an enlightened conclusion” (8), Canagarajah writes that modernist literacies result from what he calls the “Great Divide” that divorced oral and written communication, privileging the written because of its supposed “transparent meanings” and permanence (7). Under the heading “Autonomous Literacies,” Canagarajah discusses various approaches to text that focus on its claim to convey stable meanings across contexts to those able to receive those meanings (9-10). He sees this approach deriving from the Enlightenment’s “orientation to reality” because such an orientation “transform[ed] experience into manageable and abstract information” (10). Similarly, colonization worked to silence disruptive local or unsanctioned communication, and the need of religion to manage ideas required official language represented as incontrovertible (10).

Canagarajah points to the New Criticism as an example of adherence to this view of text as separate from author and context (10). However, in the 1970s, he writes, an “ethnographic bent” led scholars to challenge the claim that texts could produce meaning not influenced by the social circumstances in which they functioned (11). Scholars like Shirley Brice Heath produced work that Canagarajah classifies as “Social Literacies,” which examined how the diverse contexts in which language was both constructed and interpreted was shaped by a “text’s social functions” (11). Inherent in this literacy was a recuperation of spoken communication, which was seen as “complementary” to writing (11). Meanwhile, interest in “new literacies” deriving from multimodal practices drove attention to “vernacular” literacies (12).

Canagarajah writes that this social turn retained a view of the community itself as “homogeneous,” tending to respond to a particular “bounded object” like a text in uniform ways (12). Reaction to this tendency led to attention to the effects of power, even within communities, on the dissemination and uptake of texts (12). This turn advanced “critical literacy,” which, in turn, paved the way for the “social-constructionist orientation” (12).

Social-constructionism, Canagarajah writes, may have been equally sanctioned by the sense of loss of agency and control occasioned by late capitalism. The social-constructionist move to reduce the social, the material, and the effects of power to textual representation may have produced “greater order, coherence, and control over life” (13). This “textual turn,” as Canagarajah calls it, means that the force of the text itself is replaced by the interpretations with which it is received across divergent contexts. There is no constant meaning; power resides in the reader, whose ideology, in turn, is formed not by any exterior reality but by earlier texts: “That is, our knowledge and interpretations are a chain of unending texts” (13). As a result, texts are not seen as “reflecting social practices and material life,” but rather as “constructing” them (14; emphases original). Returning to the metaphor of weaving, Canagarajah writes that in this turn, society and text became interwoven so that complex social threads could be deciphered in texts, with the result that nothing existed outside text (14).

He characterizes a new turn as a “mobility turn” engendered by the degree to which world events “bled outside the text” (14). The need to address the reception and uses of texts by widely divergent communities across multiple borders led, in his view, to a rejection of the idea of “bounded communities” and to a conception of society as composed of “liminal contact zones” (16) where people with different ideologies and needs interact. The “traveling text,” in this view, can be appropriated endlessly, with consequent ethical implications for such repurposing (15-16). “Recontextualization” captures ways in which power-relations within contact zones can be revised as texts are taken up for new uses; “entextualization” refers to the ways in which speech can become text as it is taken up and embedded across divergent spaces (17): “It is as if the textual fabric gets rewoven with new threads every time people wear it” (17).

Canagarajah next examines a “material turn” that heralds enhanced awareness of the ways that context and physical objects have agency and impact the production of texts (18). In this view, texts are one object among many that construct meaning. Ancillary to this approach is the “recuperat[ion]” of “the agency of the textual artifact” itself as an object acting on contexts it encounters (17). Scholarship noted “performative” aspects of text/materiality interactions, with the activities involved in meaning making replacing the product as central to production and use (18-19). This emphasis, in Canagarajah’s view, underlines the “unpredictability” and expansiveness of texts in the world and reveals the ways in which experiences with texts are “mulitisensory,” with aspects that are “affective, aesthetic, imaginative, and social” (20).

Canagarajah notes the role of technology as a material actor, using the hashtag as an example of the kind of entextualization that emerges as meaning builds and shifts from activities within a “whole network working together” (21): rather than crediting a single author, such entextualization sees meaning as “coconstructed in the doing” (21). For participants, creating text becomes an “everyday practice” (22).

Such approaches to textuality, Canagarajah argues, call into view prior literacies that practiced texts as embodied and social and that were erased by Western culture (22). He uses his own Tamil heritage to explore how a single text, preserved orally, drew its significance from performance in varied settings across time: “The transcribed version was not the full ‘text’”; rather, the emotional experience engendered by encountering the text in specific material, social, and affective moments gave the text its meaning (23).

After summarizing the contents of the special issue, Canagarajah contends that movement from autonomous literacy to the fluidity and expansiveness of the material turn does not guarantee “more inclusive and democratic literacies” (26). The resources that permit coproduction of meaning, in his view, also serve interests that may wish to hide their own agendas. As a counter to this danger, Canagarajah argues that “critical intervention” remains possible because “[n]o one can control the weaving of the text” (26).


Essays from Forum: Contingent Faculty Issues, in CCC, Sept. 2015. Posted 10/06/2015.

Pytleski, Patricia Davies. “Contact Zones and Contingent Faculty: An Argument for Conversion.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 19.1 (2015): A4-A8. Print.

Patricia Davies Pytleski argues that the relationship between contingent faculty and tenure-track/tenured faculty functions as an example of what Mary Louise Pratt described as a “contact zone,” a space governed by “highly asymmetrical relations of power” (Pratt, qtd. in Ptyleski A5). In Pytleski’s view, these relations affect the material conditions in which contingent faculty function, for example with regard to “office space, meeting inclusion, voting privileges, and program development” (A5). These power differentials, she writes, affect what institutions are able to offer students. Her article explores conversion of part-time positions to tenure-line positions as a solution in some cases and presents her own experiences as an example of how such a conversion can enhance curriculum.

She notes national data showing the degree to which institutions respond to economic pressure by increasing their dependence on contingent faculty (A4). She stresses the “irony within the definition” of contingent, quoting, in which the term denotes something “dependent for existence . . . on something not yet certain; conditional” when in fact, it is the universities that are dependent on their part-time instructors (A8). Of the two solutions she sees generally offered to redress the problems faced by temporary faculty, long-term security versus conversion to tenure track, Pytleski argues for conversion because exclusion from the tenure-track community affects faculty practice in negative ways: “Only possible advancement or conversion to tenure-track lines would improve the asymmetrical power relations” (A6).

Pytleski discusses how, throughout her five years as contingent faculty, she contributed to the program at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania via her special credentials as a rhetoric and composition specialist with secondary certification and teaching experience (A6). She recounts her generally positive experiences at Kutztown while detailing the degree to which her contingent role created material impediments to serving students fully, for example her lack of regular office space (A7), and noting also how the uncertainty of her status resulted in her awareness, each year as her standing was re-evaluated, of “my placement within the power relations of this contact zone” (A7).

Pennsylvania, she writes, provides for the conversion to tenure track of part-time faculty who have worked in the same department for five consecutive years and who receive the approval of their programs (A6). Only such provisions, she contends, can alleviate the degree to which contingent faculty remain burdened by their status within a contact zone.

Dorfeld, Natalie M. “National Adjunct Walkout Day: Now What?” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 19.1 (2015): A8-A13. Print.

Natalie M. Dorfeld details the events of the National Adjunct Walkout Day (#NAWD), which took place on February 25, 2015. Inspired by “an unassuming suggestion from Leah Griesmann, a lecturer at San Jose University in California,” the event provided a number of opportunities nationwide for instructors and students to call attention to the working conditions of part-time university teachers (A9).

Dorfeld recounts events at three institutions, Seattle University, San Francisco Art Institute, and the University of Arizona, at which groups numbering in the hundreds publicly advocated for greater job security, better pay, participation in faculty governance, and benefits (A9-A10). Dorfeld notes the contributions of students, such as speaking at the rallies or producing a YouTube video (A9-A10). Many students had not known of the plight of their instructors and voiced their awareness that the working conditions these teachers face affects the quality of education the institutions are able to offer (A10).

Dorfeld notes the alternative options open to faculty who could not walk out of class due to contract provisions or state right-to-work laws. Some instructors made academic labor issues the topic of class discussion, while others participated in “grade-ins,” publicly grading papers to emphasize their lack of office space. Information tables or “day-in-the-life reenactments” also gave advocates a way to draw attention to their claims (A11).

Dorfeld notes the range of administration responses to adjunct concerns and the NAWD events. Seattle University is battling unionization on the grounds that it should be allowed a “religious exemption from labor law” (Alex Garland, qtd. in Dorfeld A9). At the University of Arizona, the vice provost of faculty affairs, Tom Miller, noted that “we can expect that we’re going to need these people, and we should be thinking long-term how we’re going to support their development” (qtd. in Dorfeld A10). Dorfeld cites the emergence of more than thirty adjunct unions and reports increased solidarity over labor issues across the higher-education landscape (A12).

She frames her article with the tragic death of Duquesne University French instructor Margaret Mary Vojtko, who passed away penniless after teaching at the institution for 25 years (A9, A12). She credits this event, which earned widespread media coverage, with “sparking an outcry both in and out of academia” (A12); such publicity, for example, may have contributed to efforts like “the Service Employees International Union’s . . . goal of securing adjuncts $15,000 per course in pay and benefits” (Peter Schmidt, qtd. in Dorfeld A12).

LaFrance, Michelle. “Making Visible Labor Issues in Writing Across the Curriculum: A Call for Research.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 19.1 (2015): A13-A16. Print.

Michelle LaFrance is concerned that research in rhetoric and composition has paid inadequate attention to labor issues connected to the increasing reliance on contingent faculty in writing across the curriculum (WAC ) programs. She cites a range of topics that have been investigated by composition scholars examining working conditions, including “the impact of contingency upon pedagogy” (A13), but argues that “few researchers have explicitly addressed the special issues of contingency that subtend WAC programs” (A15).

After illustrating the rise in the use of contingent faculty at George Mason University, where she directs the WAC program, La France supports her claim about the dearth of research specifically directed at WAC labor concerns by reviewing extant studies that discuss questions of enrollment and urge “recognizing faculty’s professional development efforts” (A15) but give short shrift to the particular problems that face adjunct instructors. Among the documents she reviews is the “Statement of WAC Principles and Practices,” a position paper endorsed by the International Network of Writing Across the Curriculum Programs. This document, LaFrance writes, “completely elides” specific issues faced by part-time faculty working to meet the unique demands of a WAC appointment (A15).

Thus, LaFrance calls upon rhetoric and composition as a whole to address more concretely how the challenges facing contingent faculty play out in WAC environments. She expresses particular concern that the attention paid to “the institutional investment, infrastructure, and planning necessary to ensure the sustainability of these often decentralized and highly localized programs” will go for naught if the factors associated with increasing “adjunctification” are not included in the growing body of research meant to support WAC as a vital subfield of composition (A15).